marcus westbury

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Newcastle circa 1996 (from the Tape Projects talk)

August 6th, 2008 by marcus

This is from text of an “artist talk” speech i gave to the folks at Tape Projects in Northcote a few weeks back.

Strictly speaking, I am not an “artist” – so it probably makes sense that I have never been asked to do an “artist talk” before. I wasn’t really sure of what I should talk about today.

Given that I am someone who never studied art, never had a particular interest in art – at least as it is conventially defined – and never really intended to work in the arts it takes a bit of explaining as to how i came to be here.

To understand how I came to be standing here, i need to go back to Newcastle in the mid 1990s. At the time there was 40 plus percent youth unemployment – a figure that seems almost ludicrous now, particularly when you consider that people that were working even a couple of hours or week or studying part time made up the other 60 percent.

A group of friends and friends of frineds got together in 1996 – we were all unemployed. We mostly knew each other from university. We’d been involved in student politics, environmental activism, and various other on campus activities.

Sean Healy and myself in particular had a strong interest in media, media activism and media culture. We’d been flatmates for years and the co-editors of the student newspaper on campus the year before. In 1996 we were both former Communications Studies students. In Sean’s case he was graduating, in my case I was being kicked out for what I think was the second time. At the time we had no reasonable prospect of getting a job and were looking for some way to productively utilise our energy.

All up about 8 of us each went to the Department of Social Security and each told some lie about needing a camera, a computer, a new suit, or something for a job interview that resulted in us each getting a $500 dole loan. We pooled the funds and took out the lease on a warehouse in the back streets of Newcastle West. At the time, the warehouse was known as the “The Pod.”

Due to a subsequent threat of legal action, the name of the organisation eventually evolved into Octapod.

Today if you go to the Octapod web site it describes itself as:

“a not for profit independent arts and new media organisation based in the heart of Newcastle”

That is what happens when you get in consultants to help you write these things. The reality is that in 1996 we all had very different ideas about what the organisation should be, no consultants and not much in the way of planning.

In no particular order among the 8 or so of us that were involved variously thought the place would be:

  • An anarchist bookshop
  • A place to hold warehouse parties
  • A Cafe – despite the rather obvious fact that the place was in an industrial area with zero passing traffic and failed every hygiene, cleanliness and number of toilets test you can imagine
  • An art gallery – something not helped by the fact that we painted the walls in imposing splotches of red and brown and that it was almost immediately turned into a..
  • A bicycle recycling centre – with about a hundred bikes and pieces of bikes spread around the main room
  • Newcastle friends of the earth
  • An activist conference and training centre
  • A media collective that provided access to and training in this new fangled internet thing
  • And a place where 3 of us thought we could live the bohemian warehouse lifestyle despite the fact it was NewCASTLE and not NEW YORK

Only in our imagination did these ideas coexist. Once we started actually doing them the obvious conflicts between them started to show.

Strangely, one of the things that was not on the agenda was the idea that the pod would become a hub for cultural festivals or events. That idea really only came about largely by accident

In months before we signed the lease on the warehouse I had broken up with my girlfriend and gone to the Adelaide Fringe Festival – where I’d done some volunteering with Dave Sag and Jesse Reynolds from Virtual Artists who were then running the Adelaide Fringe “Cyberfringe”. From there I’d also gone to Tasmania where I’d hung out with a crew of ex Newcastle people and inspiring feral hippie types who were involved in the DIY arts scene down there.

Actually the ONLY reason that the Octapod existed was because I went away for a couple of months.

We’d been talking about this for quite some time plans had often failed to move forward – mainly because of me. A main reason was that I had been playing the role of “practical guy.” I’d been pretty much the only one who thought we probably needed some sort of plan if we were going to attempt to pay the bills. The rest of the crew took advantage of my absence to basically just plunge straight in and do it anyway. A few days after i returned the others were going to sign a lease.

Coming back to Newcastle my main ambition was reconciling with my ex. I was going to tell her what an idiot I had been by breaking up with her. I was motivated enough to tell anyone who I thought would listen what a good idea it would be if someone – and by that I meant someone else – in Newcastle would start a fringe festival.

I returned to Newcastle from Hobart after about 2 days straight on a bus, ferry, bus, and train, went straight to her house to discover that she her with someone else. This is when I learnt THE INCREDIBLE POWER OF AVOIDING SOMETHING ELSE. I decided to channel my madness and frustration. Instead of simply telling everyone what a great idea starting a Newcaslte fringe festival would be, I decided to start a Newcastle fringe festival.

I was working from a very simple theory. If everyone in Newcastle who was doing something interesting did it at the same time we could call it a festival. I often find myself talking to people who want to start festivals and almost always they want to make it a lot more complicated than that. They have large ambitions and are impatient and insistent that they must achieve them all at once. Fortunately, at that time it hadn’t occurred to me to be anywhere near that ambitious. The amibition kind of took care of itself.

Over the next 8 weeks, I managed to round up a small team of people who were all active in some way in the local art, music, geek, and literature scenes. Together we put together a program that involved about 400 local artists, a 9 day program, converting about 20 of the empty shops in Newcastle to temporary art galleries, a couple of outdoor live stages, an internet and digital arts program and probably the biggest event in years for the local arts community.

A personal favourite event was the “art crawl”. Organised along with Damien Frost and seemingly half the artists in Newcastle at the time, it was a perfect combination of Newcastle traditions: empty buildings, a cheap but enthusiastic local arts community and a love of public drunkenness. We put free casks of wine in each of those 20 empty shop galleries, rounded up about 400 people and basically staged an art appreciation pub crawl on a scale that by the end of it had about half a dozen police officers accompanying the several hundred strong crowd along their merry way.

This Newcastle Fringe was inspired in roughly equal parts by the diversity of great stuff that had been happening locally and desperately needed an outlet, the stuff that I had seen in Adelaide and Hobart, and the fact that one of the key reasons my ex girlfriend had broken up in the first place was that i was lazy, unmotivated and uninspired to do very much.

We actually put the whole program together from inspiration to execution in about two months. Today I know that that is impossible but fortunately no one had told me that then. It must have been about early May when I first said aloud that a Newcastle Fringe Festival would be a good idea and July when the festival took place.

I got to the end of the Fringe Festival, having funded the whole thing with a small amount of cash and in kind support of the local business traders groups. At this point, someone far more experienced in the local arts scene than me took me aside and asked me “where the funding had come from?” I asked her exactly what she meant by funding and she explained that the government had grants programs where they funded arts, festivals and artists. Which was a concept that up until that point, I had genuinely never heard of.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JimmyDanger Aug 8, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    (A personal favourite event was the “art crawl”)

    Good times indeed!

    And I never knew that thanks were due not only to you, but also to your ex.

    It has led me to contemplate that – if not for breakups – half the culturally redefining events and movements throughout the rich history of humanity may never have occurred.

  • 2 Zac Aug 18, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Love the story…very amusing!